Project-based learning is a general term used to describe several methods of curriculum organization. Although the many types of learning under this broad term have differences in how they are first created and implemented, how they evolve and who works on them, they have similar goals and issues. In general, the term "project" refers to assignments, or sets of assignments, that are long-term (often two weeks or more) and product-oriented (from small to large scale). Process is important as well, especially in student-driven group projects, where the primary goal may be cooperative learning. However, the reality is that most school projects culminate in a demonstration or exhibition to a large audience, so the final product becomes critical. A typical school project may ask students to research a topic over the course of a few weeks and to produce a written paper, a visual, a skit, a song, a video, an oral presentation, or even a combination. Other projects might involve creating larger-scale products, such as museum exhibits, school murals, full plays, or the well-known science fair.
Keywords Applied Learning; Cooperative Learning; Curriculum Integration; Experiential Learning; Inquiry-Based Learning; Interdisciplinary Curriculum; Multi-Disciplinary Curriculum; Problem-Based Learning; Service Learning
Project-based learning is a general term used to describe several methods of curriculum organization. Although the many types of learning under this broad term have differences in how they are first created and implemented, how they evolve and who works on them, they have similar goals and issues.
In general, the term "project" refers to assignments, or sets of assignments, that are long-term (often two weeks or more) and product-oriented (from small to large scale). Process is important as well, especially in student-driven group projects, where the primary goal may be cooperative learning. However, the reality is that most school projects culminate in a demonstration or exhibition to a large audience, so the final product becomes critical. A typical school project may ask students to research a topic over the course of a few weeks and to produce a written paper, a visual, a skit, a song, a video, an oral presentation, or even a combination. Other projects might involve creating larger-scale products, such as museum exhibits, school murals, full plays, or the well-known science fair.
Project work has been around in American schools for over a hundred years. As Diffily and Sassman (2002) indicated, project work was being done in 1896 at the Lab School at the University of Chicago and articles on projects were published at least as early as 1918. Many variations of project-based learning connect back to the writings of John Dewey, particularly his Experience and Education (1938). Among many others, Bloom (1956) and Gardner (1983) have had significant impacts on project-based learning by creating practical frameworks for developing curriculum.
There are many benefits to project-based learning. For starters, projects appeal to a lot of students and teachers because they are flexible. As Barab and Landa (1997) indicated, projects can serve diversity in all its forms: cultural, developmental, cognitive, motivational, and stylistic. Schlemmer and Schlemmer (2008) wrote that projects allow for differentiation by many standards, including: content, process, product, readiness, interest and learning profile.
Because of this flexibility, projects offer a chance for students to develop many skills because they are the ones doing the work. The skills depend on the goals and objectives of the project, but can involve anything from tangible skills like sewing to thinking skills like decision-making. Group projects also provide an opportunity for students to develop interpersonal skills and help build community. Because projects are long-term, students often develop deep knowledge on a subject, sometimes to the point where they become experts. As Diffily and Sassman (2002) indicated, this can help students develop a sense of empowerment and importance.
Looking at how and why the projects are created, and for whom, helps to differentiate the three types outlined below. Some projects are entirely driven by student interests, while others are created using limited student input or choice. Some projects are created solely by teachers, or teams of teachers, and are often based on their personal interests or passions. These projects are often created and organized around curricular goals and objectives. The audience for projects can vary from only the teacher, to the class, to the entire grade or school, or even beyond into the community. Because the students are the ones who are supposed to be working, the role of the teacher in most project-based learning situations is that of facilitator or coach.
Student-Centered or Student-Driven Projects
These projects arise from student interests, are guided by student interests, are not constrained by subject or discipline boundaries, and the learning that takes place is connected to the world outside the classroom. These projects are the most free-form and the least driven by curriculum standards.
Specific content and skills are embedded in the projects, more as by-products than as targets. Some teachers, for example, will make connections to curriculum standards only in retrospect, documenting and recording the content and skills learned by the children after projects are completed. As facilitators, the teachers then guide the students toward other projects and topics that fill academic gaps. In extreme cases, some teachers will virtually ignore content goals altogether, caring more about student autonomy and collaboration than in specific content. These projects, then, are usually more process-oriented than content-oriented. Applied Learning as described by Diffily and Sassman (2002), Curriculum Integration described by Beane (1997), and some service learning projects may fall into this category.
Teacher-Directed or Curriculum-Directed Projects
These projects offer the least student choice. Teachers who have a passion they want to share with their students often create these projects. A teacher interested in storytelling, for example, may create a project where the students research and learn a story from their family's history. The teacher then creates a list of goals and objectives drawn from the state or local language/arts standards and requires all the students to meet all of the requirements. Although the students may get a few opportunities to make choices within the project, they are essentially driven by a teacher-selected topic and must meet specific curricular expectations. Many science fairs and single discipline projects fall into this category because of their prescriptive nature.
Most projects will fall somewhere in between the two previous models. For these projects, the teachers recognize the value of student autonomy, yet also stay committed to curricular goals. The Foxfire Approach described by Starnes and Carone (1999) falls into this category. In projects developed by approaches like this, the students do not have a lot of choice in what they learn, but do have nearly complete autonomy in how they learn.
Many interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary projects fall into this category because they cross subject boundaries and often ask students to explore outside the realm of curriculum frameworks or specific classes. In many of these projects, students have choices about how to approach the material: as a scientist, as a historian, as a poet, etc.
Teachers wishing to create a project-based curriculum have to decide which of the many forms outlined above fits with their particular situation. Teachers in a content-driven school system can either fulfill their curricular obligations using a project, or alternatively, they can try to carve out a few weeks for an optional project-based curriculum. Before beginning the projects, however, Diffily and Sassman (2002), suggest doing pre-project work that includes activities designed for building prerequisite skills such as disagreeing without criticizing, supporting opinions, and decision-making strategies.
There are many considerations that must be weighed when teachers are first trying to develop a project-based curriculum:
One of the first considerations is deciding whether the projects are for individual students or groups. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Individual projects allow students to choose what interests them, without having to compromise with others. With many teachers facing large class sizes, assigning individual projects can be a problem of too many student interests, not enough follow-through and assessment, and a potential lack of resources.
Group projects offer the opportunity for students to develop a variety of interpersonal skills. As Starnes and Carone (1999) indicated, for example, students working in groups have to explore, test, and refine their ideas with others, and which can lead to deepening and clarifying their own ideas.
Students can be grouped in many ways: by age, by ability, by interest, by role, and even randomly. Before beginning a group project teachers should consider the advantages and disadvantages of various grouping strategies. Schlemmer and Schlemmer (2008) provided great ideas for how to group students for many different situations. Facilitating groups raises its own set of issues:
Besides working from the state or local standards, teachers may want to use an organizing framework for developing projects. Many teachers have found using Bloom's Taxonomy or Gardner's Multiple Intelligences useful for creating project requirements that educate the whole child. Starnes and Carone (1999) provide eleven clear practices for developing projects based on students' interests. Schlemmer and Schlemmer (2008) provide a very useful matrix on various differentiation strategies, as well as ideas for differentiating the products themselves. Diffiliy and Sassman (2002) provide ideas for getting started as well as ideas for student products.
Another early consideration is to decide who exactly should be involved in the project. Because project-based learning often involves many subject areas, teachers may quickly find themselves in unknown territories if they do not involve other teachers, students and/or adults. This is especially true in higher grades, where knowledge becomes more and more specialized and departmentalized. Other teachers, adults and even students can contribute their expertise and resources to the project. In a multi-disciplinary approach, for example, students can focus on the historical parts of a project in social studies one period, scientific elements in another period, mathematical components in another, and so on. Experts from outside the school can be contacted, not only to get their input, but also to make connections to the outside world.
As many teachers have discovered, however, coordinating with other faculty can be as much work as the project itself. Conflicting schedules, lack of planning periods, technology failures, and many other factors can make...
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